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Meredith Jaffe Best Books of 2016

Meredith Jaffé is a writer and occasional book critic. For four years she wrote the weekly literary column ‘The Bookshelf’ for the online women’s magazine The Hoopla; sharing literary news, reviewing books and interviewing writers. Meredith regularly chairs panels, presents workshops and interviews fellow authors for various literary events and writers’ festivals. Her latest book, The Fence, a novel about neighbours in an escalating battle about more than just council approvals, where boundaries aren’t the only things at stake. Here Meredith reveals her best books of 2016 and the ones on her wish-list:

Truth be told, most of my reading in 2016 has either been in preparation for writers’ festivals or research with just a few pleasure reads squeezed in between. So this list is a mix of books I’ve loved this year as well as a few of the books I’m hoping to read over the summer.

I have a passion for discovering new authors. Sometimes they are just new to me and sometimes it’s because they are brand spanking new. Suzanne Rindell won me over with her debut The Other Typist and I couldn’t wait to get stuck into Three-Martini Lunch. The story starts in Greenwich Village, New York in the late 1950s. Here we meet three aspiring twenty somethings. Spoilt rich boy Cliff: college dropout, son of a famous literary agent and aspiring author. The introverted Miles, an African American scholarship student, and Eden who has come to New York from small town America to fulfil her dream of becoming an editor in the male dominated world of publishing. Rindell has a talent for painting a vibrant picture of America in the not too distant past. She interweaves the lives of these three characters who build their futures on the foundation of misdeeds and betrayal. Each must live with the consequences. Stunning writing, I snuck away to read this book to the exclusion of all else.

Multiple award winning YA author, Justine Larbalestier, returned in 2016 with the chilling psychological thriller My Sister Rosa. Clever, pretty Rosa acts like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth but in truth, this ten year old is a psychopath in the making. The only person who knows what she’s really like, and prevents her from giving in to her baser instincts, is her teenage brother Che. When the family moves from Australia to New York, Che’s role as self-appointed protector gets much, much harder. This disturbing drama gives a whole new meaning to the term precocious.

In September, I was lucky enough to interview Emily Maguire at St Albans Writers Festival about her amazing, and now Indie longlisted novel, An Isolated Incident. My first comment is that the decision to label this novel a psychological thriller does it no justice. Maguire, well known as an advocate for women’s rights, has inverted the proposition of a crime novel by examining the impact of a brutal death upon those who remain. Bella is the good sister to the hard drinking and promiscuous Chris. When Bella is found murdered, it is Chris who must deal with the aftermath as well as the unwanted attention from locals and the circling media. In essence, Maguire asks hard questions about the media obsession with the deaths of pretty girls and the impossible task of coming to terms with the sudden and inexplicable loss of a loved one. The ironically titled An Isolated Incident is deeply moving and cuts to the bone on grief and the search for closure.

The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley is on my Santa wishlist. To be on the safe side, it’s also on my kids’ Santa lists just in case Santa goes Lego, Lego, Lego…oh look! This book ticks a lot of boxes for me. There is the fact that as a naive young woman Elizabeth marries the ambitious ornithologist John Gould only to find her own career eclipsed as his flourishes. Secondly, I am in awe of those artists who dedicated their lives to capturing the natural world in authentic detail. And last but by no means least, Elizabeth’s story resonates as she struggles to balance her artistic career with the demands of domestic life and raising a family.

I’m not a massive reader of crime but I do dip in on the odd occasion. Back in 2012, I reviewed Zane Lovitt’s debut The Midnight Promise for The Hoopla. At the time, I praised Lovitt’s sharp writing saying, ‘the scenarios are well conceived, suitably violent, stupid or pointless and very funny.’ He went on to win the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction and was named one of the Best Young Novelists of 2013. Now he’s back with Black Teeth. The blurb describes it as ‘bitingly original and darkly funny: a witty dynamic contemporary thriller by an emerging master of the form.’ Black Teeth promises to be a real treat.

Angela Fournoy’s debut The Turner House has won accolades and awards aplenty. It’s 2008 and Detroit has been devastated by the downturn in the American auto industry. Viola Turner, the aging matriarch of the Turner clan, has moved in with her son Cha-Cha leaving the family home empty. Her thirteen children must decide what to do with the house. Like many families hit hard by the GFC, the house was refinanced and is now worth a pittance compared to the mortgage. Fournoy’s saga examines the glue that binds families as well as the collapse of the American Dream. Rave reviews from critics use words such as assured, poignant, compelling and funny. Sounds perfect!

Toni Jordan’s Our Tiny Useless Hearts has garnered lots of praise. It’s described as a comedy about love and marriage and I do love a good giggle. Add to that, Toni Jordan is one of Australia’s finest novelists so the writing is sure to be superb. Jordan blogged about having never read Anna Karenina (guilty!) When she finally did, she found inspiration in the idea that the novel begins the morning after the wife discovers her husband’s affair with the governess. Anna, the philandering husband’s sister, arrives to poor oil on troubled waters. Except in Jordan’s case, she has Janice’ the wife’s sister arrive. All the ingredients for a delicious farce on marriage, fidelity and true love.

Another new voice for me is Kate Mildenhall and her novel Skylarking. It’s set in the 1880s around the picturesque Jervis Bay area south of Sydney. Kate and Harriett are daughters of the lighthouse keepers and their isolated existence means the girls are best friends. As they stand on the brink of womanhood, a stranger will test their allegiance. Love, loss, friendship and tragedy all add up to a great sounding read.

I’m rather fond of a blokey read. This year I discovered the fabulous action adventures by former red beret Aussie author Chris Allen with his Alex Morgan series. The Western Australian described it as ‘a military thriller with a cracking pace in the Matthew Reilly vein.’ So to add a little balance to my summer reading list, I am planning to tackle Guns and Goannas by J.S. Browne and Bradley Franklin. Our hero is Jim Dempsey, chick magnet and problem solver for his millionaire boss. When his boss asks him to house sit his beach bungalow, Jim thinks it sounds like an easy gig. Of course it won’t be, where would be the fun in that?

Olga Lorenzo’s novel The Light on the Water opens with Anne Baxter lying in her prison cell hoping she will survive the weekend and secure bail. She’s a former journalist with a leading city newspaper, divorced from a senior barrister and mother of two. Except Aida, her youngest has died under suspicious circumstances and the finger is pointed firmly at Anne. Between the media, her former neighbours and friends, Anne is surrounded by people willing to judge her. The blurb describes it as ‘a superbly written and conceived literary work about the best and worst aspects of family life.’


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